456 Words

Todd Risley and Betty Hart studied children living in Kansas City for three years: the first three years of the kids’ lives. They wanted to know what made those three years different for children on welfare versus children whose parents were “professionals.” And, most importantly, which differences made the greatest impact on the development of those children.

The biggest and most impacting difference was not income, nutrition, quality of education – though those were certainly different.  The biggest most important difference was language.

Children who grew up in “professional” homes heard 20,000,000 more words in the first three years of their lives than kids on welfare.  The more words a child hears, the researchers say, the better developed the child is – from self-control and self-confidence to problem solving and reading and writing.

Not only was the quantity of words disproportionate but the quality as well. Children of professionals heard 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements in the first three years of life while children on welfare heard the opposite: 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist has spent much of his adult life studying various programs aimed at benefiting those at the bottom of the economic ladder in America.  He’s discovered that most programs do not work, they do not end poverty: welfare to job training, they treat poverty and joblessness as a situation in which a small set of adults skills is lacking, he says.  These programs ignore child development and act as if, once an adult, deficiencies created in childhood can be repaired.  They likely cannot.

By six a child has a basic understanding of right and wrong and the consequences for each.  By six a child can get himself out of bed and begin a task on his own.  By six a child can find middle ground with an adversary on the playground or decide to walk away from him in peace if he can’t.  By six a child can choose delayed gratification over an immediate reward. He understands hierarchies and his place in them.  He can look an adult in the eyes, steer a conversation his way, reason, persuade and disagree respectfully.  He can predict outcomes based upon what’s already been observed. But if at six he can’t do these things, the experts say it’s probably too late for him to learn.  His path in many ways is set.

And words are the biggest part of this training.  500,000 words of encouragement in only three years. That’s 456 words of encouragement every day.

I don’t know about you, but I’m suddenly motivated to write my sponsored children today and make sure I lavish 456 good words on my own.